Create Something Beautiful

Two weekends  ago I got to take my fourth class with Mandy Aftel at her studio in Berkeley, CA. It was once again time to revisit the “The Room of Many Bottles Full of Good Smells”. After the class was over I had time for reflection; which during the class one generally doesn’t; there is a lot happening and a limited amount of time to do it all in. It is an interesting paradox to say the least. The class tends to be divided up into Mandy speaking on various topics and actual cord or perfume making. The commentary from Mandy is really insightful and comes from many years of being in the busness and art of perfume making.  I think the comment that really struck me was “Making perfume is the art of learning to create something beautiful” There are many different levels to this seemingly simple statement and they might depend on culture, personal preferences and artistic inclinations. Perfume is generally something that one wants either on their bodies or in the environment nearby. It should invoke an emotion and mindset that is [usually] pleasurable and perhaps leads to other actions. Most of us wear perfumes or colognes because we want to attract others attention in a positive way, which the larger perfume makers spend an exorbitant amount of money on to convince us will indeed happen by wearing their products.

Making “something beautiful” is not an easy undertaking in the world of perfumery, there is a very step learning curve and a constant and never ending educational process that is always happening for any professional perfumer I have meet or read about. During the weekend Mandy pulled out a box of scent tests she had done, it was one box of a large collection and I have a feeling every time a new material from a different supplier or a new batch from the same supplier comes in; guess what? Retesting commences soon after opening that wonderful new flask of rose, neroli or whatever because they are naturals and there are changes between each and every batch. To really work with scent you need to lay down a mental map of the different odors of the materials you work with as well as how they interact with each other. This is a huge but very necessary endeavor. Much of the perfume making process happens in a perfumers mind, deciding on the starting two or three materials that you want to work around and maybe how they could work together and perhaps a theme or inspiration that incorporates them.

A structured approach to the creation process is also very necessary to have mastered and hold to, this is something Mandy talked about quite a lot. Without structure it becomes a free for all and you end up with a muddy mess and no idea where it went wrong. It also takes some real self-harnessing, or as Mandy said “Ask yourself why you are going to put something in.” The wrong answer is “because it’s beautiful”, better would be “because it will give the texture (or whatever other quality you need here) to the scent I am looking for”.  It is very obvious from watching her at work how dedicated she is to her art, and the countless hours that go into it to make it work in a seemingly effortless way. It is quite fun to watch how passionate she is about what she does all the way through sourcing the materials, putting a scent together, figuring out the packaging and then being able to pass it on to others. A great series to look at to see some of this is at Nathan Branch’s blog. It gives one a very rare look at the actual thinking process involved with two different perfumers (in this case Mandy and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz), there are a number of these pieces on his blog and they are priceless for their insight of some of the best in the perfume business.

This brings up another aspect to this profession that people tend to overlook, which is; you will end up throwing out a huge amount of tests, hopeful attempts and outright mistakes that just didn’t work. I think this is pretty true of any artistic undertaking, I distinctly remember a lot of load yelling and cursing from my glass blowing days as I ever so craftily made a mistake on the chemistry of a large batch of glass any number of times (damn that Happy Hour the night before). It is simply an aspect of the business that you accept going into it. But most people never look at this when they start thinking about being a perfumer. It is by no means a warm and fuzzy moment when you are smelling, say test number twenty or so, and realize it is just not going to work and you simply dump ( between that on and it’s nineteen buddies) a small fortune down the drain.

The great thing about the class setting is that there are many people there of like mind, who have some idea of what is going on and you get to bounce ideas off each other and learn from each others success’s and mistakes. You also get to use pretty much all the assorted materials that Mandy has collected over the years. It is also a great opportunity to work outside your comfort zone and receive meaningful suggestions on how to solve problems you might run up against. It also lets you shift mental gears from your regular world and keeps your thinking flexible and opens up new possibilities for ideas that were not seemingly there before. Last but not least, it is great fun. There is also a lot of laughter and comradely, which is a good thing and not to be overlooked.

OK, its time now to go check on the progress of test number twenty one, hope springs eternal!  –Ross



  1. Bellatrix said,

    October 7, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Continue inform us about your creations! 🙂
    When I am not satisfy with some trial – I usually throw it away… can’t bare it hahah 😀

  2. apsara said,

    October 4, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Thanks for mentioning that “much of the process happens in a perfumer’s mind”, because that’s how it started for me. What happens thereafter: the sampling of literally hundreds of essential oils. You start out with ten dozen empty glass bottles, for dilution, and think that’s a lot. You run out of bottles during the first testing, and that’s the first real- life teaching – never run out of bottles, NEVER!! You realize that hundreds of pipettes are needed, and you thought you had a lot when you had five dozen. If you want to re-use, they better be labeled and protected religiously, or else you have a cilantro side effect tainting the precious rose, and that can’t happen to an artisan perfumer.

    And then, of course, you order the one oil that would have been THE perfect match, and it is so inferior to the sample you received three days earlier, that you just want to cry – well, you DO cry. And still the supplier assures you for the hundredth time that the samples are always the very same oils as those that are being shipped…Why is this never the case when it REALLY REALLY matters?

    That the whole endeavour is time consuming is an understatement – be prepared to hole up for weekends on end. And there WILL come the moment when the content of a test bottle smells really really nice, and it is not labeled…damn, I was so sure I’d remember what I put in there and was it a 10 % solution, or 15% ? In addition to pouring out a lot of expensive, fragrant liquids…I prefer to write notes in the computer and you learn quickly that’s not a good idea at all, next to sticky oils, with sticky fingers – handwritten notes, that’s what it is all about, and they better be meticulous.

    So I have this wood box from a Hopi Artist which houses the better oils, and my credit card is still aching from what was spent on the contents, but that’s nothing compared to the time investment that’s so misunderestimated (I do know who coined this word, and I use it for emphasis here, even though I otherwise do not use the same words as him, mushroom cloud and such). Like, when there happens to be a good flow with the tests, and just waiting for that last special ingredient. Every day you eagerly look into the mailbox, the order had been confirmed two weeks ago by some European company, and then you get an e-mail “we don’t have that, it’ll arrive sometime this summer”. So the project that was supposed to be completed in April lasts till July, by which time you doubt everything that you did, and you realize that no one shares your taste in fragrances, everyone likes what you dislike and the other way round. And now you have a crisis, and you have a collection of expensive oils.

    Well, that’s the real life of a budding, beginning perfumer. I did not start this with the goal of becoming one, but I have certainly learned to do the chords ! And that’s VERY tedious work !!

  3. Mandy Aftel said,

    October 4, 2011 at 8:51 am

    Thank you Ross for this great review! You really captured the essence of what goes on in my studio, from the high-level concepts to the details of the work. I love your including the laughter too, it’s so important to enjoy this work, and this whole class was a terrific group!
    – Mandy Aftel

  4. October 2, 2011 at 11:08 pm

    Enjoyed the post Ross….and thanks to Mandy who shows us all about beauty and what is possible.

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